Reinventing Cooperativism The art of organizing and re-organizing with those at the bottom

This is the English translation to the introduction to a book on cooperatives which reflects some of the learning accumulated from the work of accompanying cooperatives in Central America.

Reinventing Cooperativism

The art of organizing and re-organizing with those at the bottom

The biggest challenges that we have had in at least the last 50 years,  and even for the next 50 years, are: saving the planet and humanity, mitigating climate change, reducing social and gender inequality, and building a culture of peace with justice. Who will face these challenges in a decisive way? Will big business do it, when we have seen that in each world crisis, they have captured public resources to feed their greed? Will States do it, when today´s world is governed by the market and not by politics? Will cooperatives and associations do it, when we have seen them dance to the music of the market?


We argue that an articulation between the peasantry and indigenous peoples with States, companies and churches can confront those challenges. This articulation requires shared leadership of organized peasant and indigenous peoples. In this process of organizing themselves it is important to reinvent cooperativism. That is what this book addresses.

1.    Situation

According to the World Bank (2020a[1]) rural population around the world has dropped. Between 1960 and 2020 rural population went from representing 66% of total world population to 44%. In this same period, in Latin America and the Caribbean it dropped from 52% to 19%; while in Central America the rural population continues to have considerable weight: 48% in Guatemala, 42% in Honduras and 41% in Nicaragua.

Poverty is concentrated in rural areas. According to the ECLAC (2020[2]) poverty in the rural area is 45.7%, and extreme poverty is 21.7%, while in the urban area it is 26.9% ad 9%, respectively. According to the World Bank (2020a) the rural population is concentrated in “low income” and “less developed” countries (classification of the United Nations), 67% and 65% of total population, respectively.

The peasant-indigenous or family agriculture population continues to be important in the rural area. According to the FAO (2014[3]) in Latin America 81.3% of all agricultural exploitations are family farms; in Central America and Mexico they are 78.6%. Behind these data looms inequality: family farming has access to just 23.4% of all farming land; the average area in the continent is 57.6 hectares per exploitation, while it is 13.6 for family farming, and in Central America and Mexico it is 3.13 hectares per exploitation of family farms.

The prospects for the peasantry and indigenous populations are perceived to be limited. According to the World Bank (2020b[4]) forest area by country (land with planted or natural trees concentrated in at least 5 meters in one place, excluding fruit trees and agroforestry systems) dropped between 1990 and 2020. In Guatemala it went from 44.3% to 32.9%, in Honduras from 72.7% to 56.8%, and in Nicaragua from 37.5% to 28.3%. Empirical observation tells us that the situation is worse, that there is almost no forest area left. In other words, there no longer are any “national lands” left to move into, as happened prior to the XXI Century, while mono-cropping and ranching continue to expand at the cost of family and community farming, and at the cost of forest areas.

What will humanity do if this diversity of cultures connected with the production of food and nature disappears? These peasant-indigenous cultures were lost in Europe and the United States, and agribusiness was imposed. The risk that the peasantry might disappear in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and that the vision of nature as a “dead resource” might be imposed, with its corresponding privatization of common assets and generation of plagues, is real. That is why, following Vandana Shiva (2016[5]), it is urgent to revitalize the peasantry and these indigenous peoples who feed the world while connected to nature.

Revitalizing them, nevertheless, is a difficult challenge. Because they reproduce millennial rules of hierarchical, colonial, patriarchal and capitalist structures, just like we, the so-called advisers of cooperatives, even though at the same time this peasantry and these indigenous peoples cling to a form of diversified agriculture with active female participation and “excavate” endogenous institutions of collective actions.

These populations can persist and overcome their adversities if they organize in associative forms, particularly in cooperatives. If the wealthy, in order to accumulate financial wealth, found the formula of Corporations (Inc), the peasant indigenous sector can overcome their challenges with the cooperative formula of Limited Liability (LLC).

2.    The cooperative model and the imperative to reinvent itself

In Latin America and the Caribbean the number of cooperatives and their membership has increased: in 1963 there were 17,581 cooperatives with 6 million members (Martí, 2014[6]),and in 2010 there were 110,503 cooperatives with 33 million members. The largest number of cooperatives is in the “Southern Cone” (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Paraguay), they are countries with larger agricultural land area, and within that, larger land for family agriculture, but with a smaller rural population (Chile with 12%, Brazil with 13%, Argentina 8% and Paraguay with 28%). The smallest number of cooperatives is in Central America, countries with smaller agricultural land area. In general, there are less cooperatives in “low income” and “less developed” countries. In other words, the more rural poverty there is, the fewer cooperatives there are.

The cooperative model is in crisis. It is estimated that 20% of the membership of agricultural cooperatives are women. Most cooperatives are co-opted by colonial and patriarchal capitalism: in the rural area cooperatives embrace mono-cropping agriculture, which partly explains the low inclusion of women; they function as private enterprises, leaving out their associative side, inhale the spirit of “the law of the jungle” capitalism, have the logic of growing without distributing profits, and reproduce hierarchical structures in their practice and decision making.

Despite these deficiencies, the peasantry and indigenous people can face the challenges proposed organizing themselves into cooperatives. To do so cooperatives need to reinvent themselves.

3.    The book

This book focuses on how cooperatives can reinvent themselves. It is the result of accompanying cooperatives in Central America for 20 years. One form of this accompaniment has been allowing the reality to challenge our beliefs; for example, I used to believe in cooperatives with collective land ownership, but the peasant realitiy showed me that one thing is having collective property, and another is working on collective actions.

A second form has been the fact that we have studied ourselves while accompanying the cooperatives. Going to the countryside, we realized that on the highway we ran into people from universities, governments and donors and we communicated more with one another than with the communities: we saw the communities from the speed of the highways we moved on. We observed that we all would go to the manager, and we moved about on “approved territory”; they had us hear what they wanted us to hear. When we finally were able to walk on footpaths, then we were able to enter communities and their cooperatives and see ourselves in their “mirror”, “they got out of a 4-wheel drive vehicles for the meeting and then left” and “they recommend clearing land that has already been cleared.” There I learned that we advisers were the first obstacle to cooperatives reinventing themselves, and that with cooperatives you have to walk on the footpaths and not on the highways.

A third way was discovering and knocking down walls. We, the beliefs that we accompaniers bring, was the first and hardest wall. Management was the second, then the board, community leaders, men with the status of “heads of household”…Cooperative members and we were able to recognize the walls and experience the changes. Cooperatives could reinvent themselves to the extent that, together, we were able to get beyond those walls.

The fourth way is moving in circles. We realized that innovative forces move in a circle: Sandino and his army in the 1930s in Nicaragua moved in circles; Jesus 2,000 years ago moved among the towns in the hills, the towns of fishermen and in the end in Jerusalem; the Maya culture functions in  a circle for production (mandala) and conceives that life turns in cycles, not in a linear fashion. We learned that to advise cooperatives we had to open ourselves so that the peasantry might teach us how to advise them, to move in community circles.

These ways of learning showed us a different cooperative. One that moves under the logic of knocking down walls, on rules challenging the rules of the market. A cooperative that moves in a circular perspective between the exclusionary and inclusionary rules of communities and where the cooperative is a means for this circular transformation. Combining these ways showed us a cooperative that is a school of learning and democracy, and a cooperative that reinvents itself in this circle deals with the walls, repoliticizes processes and considers the perspective from the “highway” as one perspective, not as THE perspective.

In this book a living cooperative emerges that reconquests spaces and becomes a school of peasant-indigenous thought and is a mechanism for building citizenry – based on agreed-upon rules and not on the authoritarianism of the economic, political and religious patrón. A cooperative emerges capable of catalyzing changes in the state and in companies, while learning from this articulation.

4.    A cooperative model that rereads its origins

The urban cooperatives emerged in England (1844) in conflict with industrial capitalism, and a peasant cooperative in Germany (1864) emerged in conflict with usury, and a cooperative emerged in Canada (1861) in defense of agriculture, their cultures and to stop migration. In time cooperatives were co-opted, controlled by the State and subsumed by the Market. A way of reinventing cooperatives is understanding their origins and analyzing capitalism currently, so that cooperatives might find their path, which is like cleaning a window, which is cleaned on both sides: understanding the origins of cooperatives in their context, and then understanding the current context iin which cooperatives move and must be reinvented.

The laws that govern cooperatives are similar in each country, they are like McDonalds in the United States, Nicaragua, or Tanzania. This capitalist, colonial and patriarchal “clothing” is imposed on the peasantry. A way of reinventing cooperatives is doing the reverse: that the human capacities for collective actions be expanded through cooperatives, which is why they should be “tailor made.”

In the Cooperative Congress in Manchester in 1995, the word “enterprise” entered into the identity and principles of cooperatives for the first time. It says “a cooperative is an autonomous association of people who have voluntarily come together to deal with their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.” We accept that cooperative identity, walking on two feet, a business foot and an associative foot. But under current realities most cooperatives are walking on just one foot, the business foot; there the process of democracy goes in a direction contrary to the Greek philosophy that provided the origins of democracy, which is consistent with what President Madison, gathered in the Constitution of the United States, established that democracy was only possible if directed by a minority. Cooperatives that reinvent themselves are those that overcome that perspective by combining representative and participatory democracy, which is based on assemblies and is decentralized, for that reason: interconnected. Reinventing the cooperative is that it walk on both of its feet: the business foot, which is concerned about its capital growing, and the associative foot, which is concerned about equity, transparency and democratic practice.

This reinvention is possible with “self-tying” mechanisms, unique for fulfilling their rules under their cooperative spirit, and internal and external counter-balancing power relations. Internal counter-balancing power: youth push for innovation; women take on leadership in diversification, processing and commercialization (and trade) of their products, and challenge exclusionary policies of cooperatives (e.g. that “you have to have land” to be a member); and communities provide a horizon for cooperatives and root them in their communities. External counter-balancing power: financial organizations, businesses and donors relate to the cooperative, NOT JUST with the business side, as if it were a private enterprise, but also with their associative side. The fact is that cooperativism from its origins is an alternative to capitalism.

The combination of advising cooperatives in Central America, so that they change in accordance with the spirit and letter of their rules, facilitating another cooperative emerging from communities, and the act of self-studying ourselves in this process of the reinvention of cooperatives are the bases of this art of organizing and reorganizing with those at the bottom.

This book is being written in Central America and is for cooperative members and scholars of cooperativism and rural development.

5.    Content of the book


Part I. The dynamics of transformation

Chapter 1. New emerging structures

Chapter 2. Mechanisms for changing structures

Chapter 3. Conditions that facilitate the persistance of innovative structures

Chapter 4. Differentiating processes

Part II. Endogenous alliances

Chapter 5. Youth: conditions and processes for cooperative innovation

Chapter 6. Women in cooperatives: diversifying their economy and addiung value to their products

Chapter 7. The Community: horizon and roots for cooperatives

Part III. National and global articulations

Chapter 8. Cooperatives as an articulating axis with the State, business sector and the church, embedded in national and international arenas.



René Mendoza Vidaurre, PhD

+505 85100007

[1] See: Wrold Bank 2020a, Data. h

[2] Cepal, 2020, Panorama social de América Latina. Santiago: Naciones Unidas.

[3] FAO, 2014, Agricultura Familiar en América Latina y el Caribe. Santiago: FAO.

[4] See: World Bank, 2020b, Data.

[5] Shiva, Vandana, 2016, Who Really Feeds the World? USA: North Atlantic Books

[6] Martí, 2014, “Notas para la construcción de una historia del cooperativismo en América Latina” en: Albuquerque, P., Economía social y solidaria. Praxis, vivencias e intenciones

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